At last week’s ISPO-China I was privileged to speak at the Asian Pacific Snow Conference, but the highlight of my the day was listening to and meeting Mr. Shan Zhaojian, a Chinese ski historian. I would describe Mr. Zhaojian as much more than just a historian. He is Mr. Skiing in China, and he gave a delightful presentation on the history of skiing in China. It’s way older than you think. Most of us consider skiing a northern European invention that started in Scandinavia nearly 5,000 years ago and was perfected in the Alps in the 20th century.
At the end of the day, Mr. Zhaojian handed me a wonderful book. I was honored. Called, “The Original Place Of Skiing-Altay Prefecture of Xingjiang, China” this scholarly book was just published this past January, and it turns out the book was edited by Mr. Zhaojian and a colleague, Mr. Wang Bo. Though the book is in Chinese, fortunately for me (and other English readers) the book is also bound with an English edition, too.
Mr. Zahojian is a remarkable man. He was China’s first national ski champion and for more than 50 years he has served the sport as an athlete, coach, manager, author, and national level director. In 1993 he first proposed the idea that skiing originated in China. Since then he has organized a thorough academic and scientific study of skiing in the Altay (also known as Altai) region. He also promotes the ancient ski culture of the Altay with the Ancient Fur Ski Race held each January during the last several years. It’s a ski race that racers must use traditional-style skis. Though we might consider the ski-style to be ancient, the skis are still used by hunters and herders in the Altay. As we know today, and as the people of the Altay have known for thousands of years, skis are the best way to get around in winter.
Over the past five years or so, some of you may have become acquainted with Nils Larsen, an American ski-history researcher and his documentary “Skiing In The Shadow Of Genghis Khan – Timeless Skiers of the Altai.” Click on this link for a recent write-up on the Altay by Larsen. His DVD is worth buying. Here’s a teaser from 2007 that I found on YouTube.
The Birthplace of Skiing
So how long ago and where did skiing start? From Mr. Zahojian, I learned skiing has been around at least twice long as originally known, and it didn’t start in Scandinavia.
Conventional wisdom places the birthplace of skiing in Scandinavia, and the evidence seems pretty solid. The first ski book was written in Sweden in 1555. In 1206 Birkebeiner soldiers on skis rescued Prince Haakon during the Norwegian Civil War. Two thousand years ago the Roman poet Virgil told of skiers in his poem Aenied. In 1992, a ski found in Sweden was dated to be 4,500 years old. A ski found in Finland is only 500 years younger. And rock art from Norway, estimated to be from 3500 BC shows a man on some pretty big skis. Yup, the evidence seems pretty conclusive that skiing started in countries of northern Europe. Or did it?
Rock art discovered in 1936 in Russia along the River Vyg and Lake Onega clearly showed human figures on skis. The carvings are thought to be about the same age as the Swedish ski. This region is east of Finland so technically part of Europe, but it was evidence that skiing people lived further to the east. It was until nearly 30 years later that evidence was found of older skiing people, but thanks to the Cold War the information never made it to the “west.” In the 1960s a ski relic found in Russia near Vis, just east of the northern Ural Mountains, was even older. Found in a peat bog, the ski dated back 8,000 years. It was the credible archeological evidence that people skied in northern Asia before Scandinavia. In recent years in the Altai (Gold) Mountains of Central Asia even older pictographs and stone carvings have been found. The oldest are from the Dundebulake river valley in the Altay (Altai) Mountains of northwestern China. These go back at least 10,000 years and maybe earlier. Here are a couple of examples from Zhaojian’s book.
The pictographs and carvings were found along Dundebulake River, not far from Handegate (Mongolia).
“Riding Wood Sliding Figure 1.” Rock art cited by Zhaojian and Bo (2011) from Silk Road Sports Catalog (2008) edited by Li Jimmei and Li Zhongshen.
This next one, a rock carving, is very interesting because it shows the skier with two sticks (ski poles?). The “two-stick” technique, pushed by Austrian Army Officer Georg Bilgeri, was not adopted until around World War I.
“Skier, Wolf, Sheep.” Rock art cited by Zhaojian and Bo (2011) from Silk Road Sports Catalog (2008) edited by Li Jimmei and Li Zhongshen.
So it looks like skiing is much older than we thought. And it looks like rockered skis are not a new innovation either. It seems that “sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Thanks for reading.
Awesome post, Dale! I know Mr. Zhaojian is all about skiing, but does the book talk about snowshoes at all? Given this new understanding of how far skis date back to, I’m wondering if snowshoes go back to a similar time or even earlier? I’m rooting for skis first as it will settle a couple of friendly bets around Alpine… 😉
(subscribing to thread…)
Not sure if this will help with your bet, Zhaojian says: “…snowshoes evolved into ski board[s] in some places like Altay region.” He goes on to add, “During the investigation in Altay, it is said that Altay people used snowshoes at one time but there have been no real snowshoes or historical records about snowshoes found in the Altay region. But we can find its traces in some pictographs found in Altay. He shows a pictograph of a person on obvious snowshoes (oval shape), but does not give an age. He concludes, “Therefore we can say that Snow Shoes and skis are ‘genetically connected’.”
Where can I order the English version of Mr. Zhaojian’s “The Original Place Of Skiing-Altay Prefecture of Xingjiang, China”? Anybody?
Some comments to this most interesting post: Wang Bo is, I believe, the Chinese anthropologist/archeologist in charge of the findings where the rock drawings have been announced as being between 10 and 20 thousand years old. There has been no scientific verification yet.
There was a book written by a committee with Shang Caizhen listed first, in Chinese, which translates as The History of Skiing in China, published by the Chinese Soc. for the History of Sports and Physical Education, 1994, Part of the first chapter was given in a paper–in English–and can be found in Matti Goksoyr, et al (eds.) Winte Games Warm Traditions. Oslo: Norwegian Society for Sports History, 1996.
Shang Z may have proposed the origin of skiing in China in 1993, but he was certainly not the first. Even Nansen (1890) had believed this was so and, helped by linguistic analysis (now somewhat criticized) he shows how he believed skiing had spread from the Altai region.
Olaus Magnus 1555 was certainly the first book written with explanations and drawings of skiers (although there had been drawing of skiers earlier) but in the Chinese documents of the West Han period (i.e. some 1500 years before Olaus Magnus) you can find descriptions of skiing.
For all this and more see Allen, E. John B. The Culture and Sport of Skiiing from Antiquity to World War II. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2007.
I, too, would like to know where the book can be obtained.
I’d also like to know where the english version can be ordered. Thanks for this!
Your information is unfounded and bogus. The history of man only goes back roughly 6000 years. Any claim before then such as 8 or 10,000 years is absurd and negates any claims made in your article. Nice try. The actual history on the origin of skiing is muddled with time. As likely as china or any other region may be as the birthplace or true origin of skiing, any claim as evidence is not well founded because of lack of solid factual evidence. Chinese ski history is fascinating as is the history of skiing in any culture. What is more relevant to the WORLD is the Scandinavians development and promotion of the sport.
I am glad you stopped by and read my piece. I agree with your last point about the relevance of Scandinavian development and promotion of skiing — it’s vast and dominate. However, to come out with guns blazing and write that any claim going back 8 to 10,000 years is “absurd and negates any claims” is a logical fallacy on your part. While I am not a historical anthropologist (I am only a casual reader of history), a pretty rich interpretation of human history is documented in a variety of locales going back far beyond 6,000 years: think Neolithic. Certainly, when it comes to skiing there is vagueness in the dates of origin but that does not necessarily imply invalidity. The dating of pictographs and other types of rock art will always be very fuzzy; however, the date of The Vis ski — an archaeological artifact — is much more precise at 5000-6300 BC. Simple math puts it at 7000-8000 years back from today. Stone age man created and used tools. Is it impossible to think that he also skied and maybe not first in Scandinavia?
I figure skiis came before snowshoes. They seem to be a lot simpler technology then wound snowshoes. I think snowshoes are all american.they make a good trail for the critters to follow, when trapping. I swear indo- Europeans invented everything cool!
Although “all Americans” are related to the altay group, maybe snowshoes are that old! That could be up to 14000 years ago! But then again, humans have survived more than one ice age, right?
Seems reasonable to think that skis came before snowshoes but the development of skis and shoes might have happened in parallel. Likely Strabo was describing snowshoes when he wrote more than 2000 years ago, “they fasten circular disks of wood with spikes to the soles of their feet” about people in the Caucasus. More recently archaeologist Jacqui Wood has proposed that Ötzi, the copper ax-wielding iceman found frozen in the Alps from 5000+ years ago, wore snowshoes. No matter whether you use skis or shoes for play or work, the whole idea these days is to put a smile on your face.